Twice a year, in the spring and the fall, attorneys gather at Mid Central Community Action in Bloomington, Illinois on a Saturday morning for the Legal Advice Fair. Co-sponsored by MCCA, the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Pro Bono Committee, Prairie State Legal Services, State Farm Bank, the Immigration Project and the McLean County Bar Association, this semi-annual Fair provides low-income people with free legal advice.
“There’s an energy about going to this community center, starting the morning out early, with a bunch of attorneys and support staff and paralegals in the room getting ready for what’s about to happen,” said Ryan Gammelgard, Counsel in State Farm Law Department. What’s about to happen is around 30-40 low-income people are going to walk through the door with legal issues looking for assistance.
An Idea to Increase Pro Bono
The Legal Advice Fair started out as an idea from Scott Vogelmeier, a Senior Compliance Analyst at State Farm Bank who had just moved to Bloomington from El Paso, Texas. He had volunteered with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid at a Legal Fair and thought something similar could be done in Illinois. He presented Adrian Barr at Prairie State Legal Services with the idea of doing a half-day legal fair where clients could come in for one-time legal advice on their civil legal issues. Attorneys wouldn’t need to make long-term commitments and clients would receive assistance on their issues.
Adrian and Scott presented the idea to State Farm and McClean County Bar through PILI’s Eleventh Judicial Circuit Pro Bono Committee. The Pro Bono Committee is a group of lawyers and judges that strive to enhance equal access to justice by encouraging and promoting pro bono work in the Eleventh Judicial Circuit. “PILI was the conduit that we were able to present this idea to everyone,” said Adrian. The Committee was enthusiastic about the idea and they put the first fair together in 3 months and welcomed their first clients in the fall of 2015.
Putting the Plan Into Action
People come to the clinic with a range of legal needs, including family issues, housing issues, debt issues, immigration issues and more. “The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Adrian. “Clients are just so happy that someone could talk them through their cases.” Approximately 30 attorneys and paralegals with different backgrounds attend each clinic.
One woman attended the clinic who needed help collecting child support from her ex-husband. She told Prairie State, “I feel relieved and empowered. Thank you for providing such a needed service to our community.”
The group puts on the fair twice a year, in the fall and spring, for clients in need. So far, there have been four such fairs and 130 clients have received legal assistance.
Attorneys also appreciate the experience as well. “I absolutely enjoy it,” said Carrie Haas, a trial lawyer with Dunn Law Firm and a Co-Chair of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Pro Bono Committee. “With so many people living below the poverty line and not having access to legal services, I think it’s essential for the community.”
Her Co-Chair, Todd Miller of Ogar & Miller agrees. “I think that there is an unfortunate disconnect between many of those in need of legal assistance and the ‘system,’” he said. “The connection, provided by this program, between the legal community and the members of the community in need benefits all of us.”
The Impact of Teamwork
Since the implementation of the program, the local bar has seen a dramatic increase in volunteerism. At Praire State in 2014, 88 cases were referred to volunteers. In 2015, 101 cases were referred to volunteers. And in 2016, 124 cases were referred. The 40 percent increase in pro bono referrals over 2 yearsis largely as a result of the Legal Advice Fair. Additionally, Adrian is working with State Farm to develop additional volunteer opportunities.
“I’m very pleased with the willingness of the local bar,” said Scott. “I didn’t know any of these people when I first moved here, and I was really pleased to see there’s a group that is willing to do whatever it takes.”
It was the goal of the Judicial Circuit Pro Bono Committee Program to bring together groups like these to address local needs. “PILI is able to develop opportunities and address issues that need to be addressed,” said Ryan. “This Legal Fair would not exist but for PILI.”
And while PILI might have provided the space to bring everyone together, it’s taken the work of everyone to get it off the ground and serve clients in need. As Adrian at Prairie State said, “It’s really been a group effort.”